Shanghai’s ‘Underworld’: Considering Crime Spatially

When investigating the history of crime, whether on an institutional or ‘organised’ level, or simply petty thievery, we encounter many oppositions and binaries. Crime exists in opposition to an imposed order. It implies a nonadherence to a set rule. Frederic Wakeman’s article on policing Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s explores the various forces seeking to instil order in Shanghai, which contributed towards its development as an urban municipality.[1] Throughout his article there runs an analytical undercurrent about how crime (considering it as representing an opposition to a desired order) affected urban administrative developments. This in turn influenced Shanghai’s development as a demarcated municipality. In this blog post, I will reject the notion of crime as in complete opposition to policed urban order in Shanghai in the 1920s. I argue that these criminal networks were bound up in the governing processes of Shanghai, both formally and informally. We can better understand the spatial ordering of urban Shanghai, and how this evolved throughout the early- to mid-20th century, by analysing this complex relationship between crime, order, and authority.

The language used when discussing crime in an urban context often constructs a separate location for its occurrence. For instance, presenting the ‘underworld’ of a city, which exists alongside the regular city, provides an imaginary for where crime takes place that is useful to maintain order. Out of sight and out of mind, as it were. This separation allows residents to feel safe in the ordered ‘above-ground’ side of the city, separated from the ‘underworld’ of criminal activities and morally questionable behaviour. Concerning the ‘underworld’ of Shanghai, Wakeman explains:

“Virtually all of these underworld elements belonged to small bands of gangsters called dang or hui that were ruled over by a massive criminal confederation and secret society, originally organized by Yangzi River boatmen, called the “Green Gang” (Qingbang).”[2]

 Wakeman argues that because the Qingbang kept the criminal world of Shanghai ‘in order,’ their activities and existence were tolerated by the International Settlement, French, and Chinese police forces. Many police officers and detectives were associated with the Qingbang or drawn from its membership, as this association was key to performing arrests needed in order to supplement their regular salaries.[3] Already we can observe a complexity in that the Qingbang were instilling an informal form of order within their pursuits as criminals and racketeers. There is order in the coordination of their criminal activities, and thus the notion that crime exists in binary opposition to lawfulness is no longer applicable. Furthermore, we can understand this directly through the influence of crime on Shanghai’s evolution into a municipality.

The power struggle between the central Nanjing government and municipalities establishing their own identities played out through the police and urban order mediums.[4] In Shanghai, both Wakeman and Brian Martin connect these tensions to complex criminal networks through locating illegal activities in the French Concession area. Captain Fiori of the French Concessionary Police (FCP) protected the economic power of Qingbang undertakings, such as in gambling or opium rackets. First, in the early 1920s through instating Huang Jinrong as chief detective, and then in the later 1920s through using Du Yuesheng’s influence to maintain the Concession’s security in the face of national political unrest.[5] Martin argues that the FCP tolerated Du’s racketeering in return for Qingbang aid in maintaining order within the Concession:

“The close cooperation between the French police and Du Yuesheng’s gangsters was officially acknowledged in 1928 by the acting Consul General Meyrier in a dispatch to the French Minister in Beiping. It is probable that the French used the gangster bosses as their intermediaries in establishing contacts with the GMD’s NRA [Guomindang’s National Revolutionary Army], an important element in their strategy to maintain the security of the Concession during the first four months of 1927.”[6]

Through this intertwining of authority, the Qingbang’s crimes become relegated in the public’s imagination to another ‘criminal world,’ not visible to and unaffecting of their safety within the Concession area. In turn, this criminal ‘underworld’ is ordered by the spatial limitations of the collusion that resulted from the complicated relationship between these criminals and the police. An understanding of crime in a binary as solely in opposition to official authority prevents investigation of how illegal activities affected urban administrative developments in Shanghai, which directly contributed to its demarcation as a municipality. Where we historically locate crime, and how visibly it appeared, is affected by recognising these informal expressions of authority in combination with formal institutionalised authority.


[1] Frederic Wakeman Jr. (1988) ‘Policing Modern Shanghai,’ The China Quarterly, 115: 409

[2] Wakeman (1988) p. 414; William T. Rowe (1982) ‘The Qingbang and collaboration under the Japanese, 1939-1945: materials in the Wuhan Municipal Archives,’ Modern China, 8(4): 493-94

[3] Wakeman (1988) p. 415

[4] Ibid, p. 425-6

[5] Wakeman (1988) p. 415; Martin, Brian G. (2020) The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919-1937, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 115

[6] Martin (2020) p. 115